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Jack Zaleski, Published December 24 2011

Joy and light in Christmas evergreen

For the past several years, I’ve received requests to reprint a Christmas column I wrote for The Forum in 1988. As in previous seasons, this year I heard from people who have wonderful Christmas tree memories. And I am happy to report real evergreens are still the overwhelming favorite of Americans. But I also must report that my wife and I succumbed to the convenience and economics of an artificial tree. Still, memories of the kids and real trees endure. So, here again is that old holiday column that still resonates with readers. Merry Christmas.

Artificial trees were hot items in the 1950s. It was the era of plastic chairs, blond woodwork and pink and gray DeSotos. Tacky was in fashion. Fake trees fit the time well.

My dad bought a fake tree. It was white. There was something about a white tree that made a statement: Aren’t we the modern ones.

The white tree was part of Christmas in my parents’ house for many years when I was young. It would come out of the box to be adorned with blue ornaments, blue lights and blue tinsel. The original blue-light special.

The stiff synthetic branches yellowed with time, and one Christmas the fake tree was junked in favor of the real thing. My dad and I picked out a fresh-cut tree at a lot near the newspaper where he worked. “Trees from the Maine woods,” the sign said. A real tree – lush and woodsy fragrant. It was sticky with sap; needles stuck to our hands as we tied it into the trunk of our ‘53 Plymouth. My dad was having a good time.

The tree was crooked and lacked a couple of branches, but once festooned with bubble lights, garland and shimmering tinsel, it was beautiful. My sister and I would sit for hours watching it sparkle in the darkened living room. When we got home from school, the aroma of the tree would greet us. We knew it was Christmas at our house.

As I have for all the years I’ve lived in North Dakota, I bought a real tree this season. But there’s something different about tree sales these days. A trend started a few years ago that seems to have gained steam. I’m talking about the tendency toward homogenized trees – those “perfect pines,” “spectacular spruces” and “fabulous firs.” It’s as if they’re striving for the phony perfection of artificial trees.

As I stumbled around in the mud and snow in my quest for a tree, I noticed their most outstanding feature was manicured sameness. Designer trees. Perfectly shaped. No bare spots, no broken branches, no crooked trunks.

I found a 6-footer – a bit bent and sporting a bare spot – and took it home. I could smell the pine sap when I sawed off the end to fit the stand. The tree is in the living room, waiting to be decorated. It draws the kids into the room. They’ve examined it from top to bottom. “It’s crooked,” my son says. “Uh huh,” I reply, “it is.” So we fiddle with it to make it straight. “Good,” he declares. Soon he and his sister will sit in awe as the lights and tinsel throw Christmas color into the room. “Doesn’t it smell nice!” my little girl says. Sure does. And it takes me back to the year my dad and I brought home our first real tree. Every kid should have a Christmas memory like that. Mine do.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521.